Lawsuit accuses police of running illegal background checks on Muncie councilwoman’s opponents

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MUNCIE, Ind. -- A federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last Monday names the city of Muncie, Muncie Police Department, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #87 and City Councilwoman At-Large Nora Powell.

The initial suit alleges five officers illegally used the Indiana Data and Communications System to perform background check’s on Powell’s opponents. It also accuses Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler's administration of undermining "collective bargaining negotiations" with the Muncie Fraternal Order of Police.

Wednesday, the Muncie Fire Chief Eddie Bell added his name to the suit after his background was run on July 30 and September 1. The two officers who are believed to have conducted this background check were also added to the suit, bringing the total number of Muncie police officers allegedly involved to seven.

Those officers are Joshua Carrington, Joe Powell, Chase Hunter, Justin Peters, and Brian Ashton. The two others have not yet been identified.

Attorney Brian Pierce represents Audie Barber, who ran for city council, Sarah Beach, the mayor's personnel director who also ran for city council, and Kristopher Bilbery, an outspoken critic and journalist who covered the 2019 election.

“What we discovered was during the campaign, both before and after the 2019 primary election, background checks were run on all three of my clients through what is referred to as the IDACS system,” said Pierce.

The IDACS is operated by the state of Indiana. It holds criminal records and provides access to a federal database. But it is only to be accessed by law enforcement if a crime has been committed or if there is probable cause. The lawsuit says Indiana State Police confirmed the plaintiffs’ backgrounds were run.

"My clients have alleged and believed that the system was accessed in order to, for lack of a better description, 'dig up dirt' on them in hopes of ruining or torpedoing their candidacies in favor of the current council member,” said Pierce.

The suit alleges the actions were conducted "at the request of or benefit of" the Fraternal Order of Police and Councilwoman Powell.

The lawsuit alleges some background checks were run by Councilwoman Powell’s stepson, Joe Powell, an officer named in the suit.

In a statement, Councilwoman Powell said, “I have not been served with any complaint, in any court, in any jurisdiction regarding the issues you’re addressing...These allegations are just that, allegations. They are baseless and without merit. I will demonstrate that in the appropriate forum at the appropriate time.”

Now, Muncie Fire Chief Eddie Bell is adding his name to the suit after Bell says he served as the campaign manager for Beach, who was Powell’s opponent.

“If you don't agree with what I’m saying and what I’m trying to do for the citizens of Muncie, and the Muncie Fire Department, then don't pull my background checks and try and find things you can use against me, and basically, I think that's what it's come down to,” said Bell.

Days prior, Muncie Police Chief Joe Winkle issued a memo saying the violations were addressed during a department-wide training.

"It's a complete disregard of authority for not only their supervisor, but city hall in general,” said Pierce.

This is the latest legal hurdle for the city. In July, two city employees were arrested after the FBI raided the Muncie Sanitary Department. Both indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and making false statements.

In September, multiple Muncie police officers were subpoenaed. The department is currently under federal investigation by the Department of Justice.

"When you get negative public attention such as the FBI in multiple areas, people get the wrong idea of the community. It just so happens that a lot of attention has been drawn to this city for very few bad actors. I don't know if my cases will overlap with the FBI investigations. I think there will be some overlap,” said Pierce.

The Fraternal Order of Police issued the following statement regarding the allegations:

The Muncie Fraternal Order of Police is committed to protecting the rights of the citizens of the City of Muncie. We have reviewed the Complaint with our legal counsel and determined that the allegations against the FOP are frivolous and in bad faith.

We reached out to Chief Winkle, who says he was not willing to comment. We’ve also reached out to Mayor Tyler, who has not returned any of our phone calls.

We will keep you update on this developing story.

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